Strong School Culture Creates Academic Success

John Laughner, Legislative and Communications Manager, Magnet Schools of America 

A representative from the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) recently called the national office to sing the praises of a young magnet school principal who was getting dramatic results at one of the city's low performing schools. The principal, Dr. Roberto Padilla of West Prep Academy, recently finished his doctoral dissertation at Fordham University regarding ways to turn around low-performing schools. He has started implementing some of the policies from his research at his school.

Before speaking with the principal, I decided to do some homework on the school. The West Prep Academy is a middle school located near Harlem in New York City.  It was originally housed in the same building as five other schools, and is a Title I school with 85% of its students qualifying for free/reduced lunch. When Dr. Padilla first came on board in 2011, West Prep was characterized as a "dumping ground" for students who did not get accepted to their preferred choice of schools.

My first impression of the school after visiting their website was that it seemed innovative and moving in the right direction.  All the students are referred to as scholars and wear purple and gray uniforms including coats and ties. “We refer to them as scholars because we believe that they are scholars, both in conduct and academics. Students are pushed academically and are expected to give their best effort every day,” says Dr. Padilla.

They participate in a magnet program called, "Youth Voice Through Youth Media," which was designed in consultation with the school's teachers and the support of a Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant. The program seeks to not only prepare students to thrive in a technology driven society, but also to find their own unique voice enabling them to be agents of change in their community.

So what does that look like in the classroom? All students take a media class and are expected to create documentary films with the help of their partner, Reel Works. This is a film making mentoring program that challenges at-risk youth to tell their stories and have their voices heard through film. 

One particular class required students to study the baseball culture of the Dominican Republic. Students read, researched, and interviewed baseball players to learn about their childhood conditions and how baseball is being used as a vehicle to achieve their dreams. Students even had the chance to interview Yankees third baseman, Eduardo Nunez, to learn how he overcame poverty to make it to the major league.

Students at West Prep also benefit from technology rich classrooms that feature Smart boards, which teachers use to create engaging media rich lessons. Dr. Padilla says that his students are perfect for this type of instruction because technology and media are already a part of their normal daily life; especially in NYC. Media literacy is a major component of the school’s magnet theme.

From the Beginning

When Dr. Padilla arrived at West Prep Academy midway through the 2011 school year, he found what he called a "culture of chaos." For example, before his first day, five student fights broke out while district representatives were touring the school. Student and teacher safety was definitely a major issue.

Dr. Padilla said there was no structure or monitoring systems in place and there was very little urgency for students to move quickly between classes. Now there is an adult presence throughout the school building, letting students know they are being supervised. Dr. Padilla and his staff even stopped an off campus fight from occurring, which showed the students that the administration cared about their behavior after school as well.

Dr. Padilla said that a lot of the school’s problems stemmed from the perception that it was a dumping ground for students and teachers. It wasn't considered as prestigious as other magnet schools in the city and this permeated the minds of parents, teachers, staff and students. Dr. Padilla said his initial goal was to change people's expectations. He wanted to reshape the vision of the school, and that meant rebuilding the relationships between the teachers and students to create an atmosphere of trust.

West Prep was considered a failing school by the city, and the previous principal was asked to leave. It was losing students and 94% were performing below grade level. Most of the teachers were also new and didn't know how to design daily or weekly lesson plans. The situation just didn't spell success.

Dr. Padilla went through a needs assessment process where he met with his teachers one-on-one to gauge their strengths and weaknesses and design an effective system of professional development. Dr. Padilla said most of the school’s professional development is based on the instructional methods of Charlotte Danielson. To learn about her framework of teaching click here

Another step in the turnaround process was to hire new teachers that wanted to not only be a part of something bigger, but who were also interested in enhancing their leadership skills. During his first year, Dr. Padilla interviewed 80 candidates for only 10 new teaching positions. He also brought in additional male teachers to serve as role models for the students.

West Prep was one of 25 schools that were recently added through a competitive process to the NYCDOE’s I-Zone program, which Dr. Padilla says aligns well with what the school is striving towards. The program was started in 2010 and includes 250 NYC schools that are committed to personalized and blended learning as well as utilizing technology. At West Prep, this includes student-led parent-teacher conferences and the creation of digital portfolios.

Dr. Padilla said the student-lead parent -teacher conferences have been very successful because they allow students to conceptualize and talk about their learning. It has also been a big hit with parents who say that the conferences allow them to feel more connected to their children’s learning. Additionally, they report that it strengthens their relationship at home.

A Complete 360

Today, West Prep is a completely different place and is now a safe place to learn. It has relocated to another building where it shares space with an elementary school with a similar magnet theme. Student attendance rates have increased and applications to attend the school have doubled. Before Dr. Padilla started, enrollment was decreasing rapidly.

The quality of the teaching has also improved, and the school’s reputation in the community has changed. For example, last November, the school held a turkey bowl to celebrate Thanksgiving, which brought families to the school from the surrounding neighborhood. West Prep was also recently given its first robust review and is now ranked as “Well Developed” by the NYCDOE. This is the district’s highest rating.